Abstract: In the age of the Anthropocene, we can no longer trust the human voice to say the truth of things. In a twisted, perverted way, the Anthropocene condemns human ‘saying’ as false and misleading while affirming the human as the only one who can say anything at all. This paradox of the human voice – a voice that is unable to tell the truth in its very capacity to tell the truth – is what besets us today. Is there a voice that can speak out of this paradox without its paradoxical claim on what is said? In this article I will work with the possibility of a poetics that speaks with nature in a poietic voice: not the human voice that speaks paradoxically, but the voice unheard in this very speaking. To attempt such a task I will invoke the work of the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, who proposes a poetics of the figural from the perspective of the eye over the voice. My claim is that to arrive at a non-Anthropocentric way of poetic saying we must go by way of the eye over the voice. We do not hear what is seen; rather, in what is seen we hear. This article will focus on the saying of nature in two poems: Wallace Stevens’s ‘The Rock’, and John Ryan’s ‘I Turned the Corner and Entered the Mind of the Beech Forest’. While Stevens’s poem speaks with the Anthropos, unable to hear the other who cannot speak back, Ryan’s poem speaks after the Anthropos with nobody’s voice heard in the poem’s visual presentation. There is no other to speak back, only the fall into oblivion: a fall into nature where the voice is heard.
Key Words: ecopoetics, deconstruction, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Anthropocene, Wallace Stevens, John Ryan
This article[i] concerns two aspects of the Anthropocene: the name given to a new geological epoch in which human attempts to control the Earth’s forces have caused a rift in the human/nature relation, producing what eco-philosopher Jason Moore calls ‘negative-value’ in capitalist accumulation (‘Nature in its Limits’). Negative value is an ecological surplus that threatens global catastrophe and species extinction.[ii] Nature becomes negative-value when capital expansion breaches its own limits, toxifying inhabitable worlds with waste, resulting in the current crisis of climate change. This is the aspect telling us that something is wrong with the modern Anthropos – the human ‘way of being’ – in the current age of hypermodern capitalism. This is the wrong that must be put right.
The other aspect of the Anthropocene concerns the poietic voice: a voice that speaks ‘otherwise’ – within and against what is already said. Let’s take a practical example. Imagine yourself in front of a mirror: you see yourself in the mirror and say ‘that is me’, but at the same time you feel an uncanny sense that what you see is not me. There is a gap in your sensory awareness between the voice that confirms this is me and the ‘not me’ that I see in the image.[iii] This ‘not me’ speaks silently, countering the possessiveness of the voice that claims ‘this is me’. It ‘tells us’ what is seen but not heard: that things could be otherwise.
For the holocaust poet Paul Celan, the poietic voice is the voice of nature in its negated otherness where even the stones speak:
Like one speaks to the stone, like
To me from the abyss
Stones speak back ‘from the abyss’ but with whose voice. They speak with Nobody’s Voice – a voice heard when we listen for what the stones are not saying.[iv] Nobody’s Voice is what we must listen for if we are to put the wrong right: if we are to repair the rift in the human/nature relation in the way it is said. In light of these issues of a wrong way and a right way of saying our relation to nature, I will set out what I see to be a problem in the institution of poetry: how poetry institutes itself as a way of saying something.
I have mentioned the word ‘saying’ a number of times, but what does it mean? To say something is to bring whatever is said into being some thing as the ‘truth’ of what is said. To say that something is, is to speak of it truly, as opposed to doxa or opinion. Saying is what is called a deixis in that it marks the act of saying in relation to the thing said, characterised by an ‘I’ or its derivative pronouns (‘we’, ‘us’). The poetic saying of nature is the act of bringing into being the things of nature through the voice of the poet, speaking as an ‘I’ in the poetic event (Mules 37). The poietic voice is the poetic voice turned against itself (the I that speaks back in the mirror image), so that it releases the things of nature from being for what is said. The poietic voice is not a separate voice to the poetic voice, but the same voice speaking otherwise.
In order to show how the poietic voice speaks in a practical sense, I will look at two poems featuring plant species: a poem by the twentieth century modernist poet Wallace Stevens entitled ‘The Rock’, in which the plant species named in the poem cannot speak back, and a poem by contemporary eco-poet John Ryan, entitled ‘I Turned the Corner and Entered the Mind of the Beech Forest’, where the plant species named speak with an ‘inhuman’ voice heard in the image seen. My aim here is to demonstrate the limits of the saying of these poems – their voice – in terms of a difference between what is heard and what is seen. The ear hears what the eye sees, but in which order? While Stevens’s poem speaks with the voice of the Anthropos and hence continues to claim nature in its negative-value as nature ‘for us’, Ryan’s poem speaks otherwise to the Anthropos; that is, with Nobody’s Voice heard in what is seen but not said – in the poem’s visual presentation. We do not hear what is seen; rather, in what is seen we hear. In Ryan’s poem, poietic saying is released from the Anthropos so that we can hear the voice of nature in its ecological surplus – as nature in us but not of us or for us.
To facilitate my reading I will turn to the philosophy of Jean-François Lyotard, whose work on the figural, art and aesthetics has yet to be taken up in ecopoetics. At first glance, Lyotard is a most unlikely thinker to call upon to address the problems of the voice in poetic language, as his work, most of which was published in the second half of the twentieth century, is mainly confined to art and aesthetics from a poststructuralist/postmodern perspective, a position many regard today as outdated and unable to respond to the ‘ontological turn’ in the contemporary humanities. New materialisms and the turn to cognitive and quantum physics have emerged everywhere in the humanities today, proposing a radical ontology of nature that claims to have dispensed with the need for critical reflection on the subject speaking on nature’s behalf (Coole and Frost 2-3). However, criticism of poststructuralism on these grounds is misguided, as the de-essentialising of the voice needed to establish such a ‘voiceless’ ontology had already been undertaken by various twentieth century thinkers through a severe critique of phenomenology (Derrida, Lacan) without surrendering the reflexive power of critique. Lyotard’s own critique of these deconstructionist positions – a critique that does not reject them, but carries them further into the ontological openness of voiceless being – already anticipates and indeed fulfils the need for a shift to radical ontology in the Anthropocene, for instance with his proposal of the concept of the ‘inhuman’ (The Inhuman), a negative potential that ungrounds human reason in fundamental paradox, aporetic impasse and the differend (The Differend). Lyotard’s work retains the critical reflexivity needed to release the subject’s grip on nature, unlocking the potential of the modern Anthropos to speak otherwise, in another voice.
The shift in Lyotard’s work to a post-Anthropocentric mode of critical thinking begins in his groundbreaking book Discourse, Figure, where he opens up what he calls ‘figural space’ – a pre-subjective visual field – by reversing the order of the ear and the eye in the perception of artworks including the modernist, ‘concrete’ poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé (Discourse, Figure 61). The entire thrust of Lyotard’s analysis hinges on the proposition that language (signification) contains an excess of seeing – an ‘eye lodged at its core’ (7) – that transgresses the logos of the voice – its capacity to speak the truth. Modern poetry – with its self-reflexive questioning of the ‘I’ that speaks – provides us with an exemplary case of a language that harbours a repressed perception: an eye whose seeing exceeds the voice.
By following Lyotard’s lead, we can overturn the institutionalisation of the poetic voice as an intimate saying of what the poet feels, as if all thought, all reason ended there, thereby releasing the poem’s images from the grip of what it says. We can then hear the voice in its ‘otherwise’ saying, as the poietic voice speaking from a position on the other side of the Anthropos but within the perceptual field from where the Anthropos speaks. In this way, modern poetry sets us on a path to make the wrong right; to reset the poietic voice so that it speaks for those to come after the Anthropocene.
Here is a well known definition of the Anthropocene:
The term Anthropocene suggests: (i) that the earth is now moving out of its current geological epoch, called the Holocene and (ii) that human activity is largely responsible for this exit from the Holocene, that is, humankind has become a global geological force in its own right. (Steffen et. al. 843)
What concerns me about this definition is the last phrase: ‘humankind has become a global geological force in its own right’. This suggests that the modern Anthropos has broken free from the restraints of the Holocene, and that the Anthropocene is the age of human self-overcoming taken to its limits. What is the problem here?
The problem here concerns the capacity of the Anthropos to say the truth of things. In a twisted, distorted way, the Anthropocene condemns human ‘saying’ as false and misleading (a danger to the human/nature relation), while affirming the human as the only one who can say anything at all. This paradox of the human voice – a voice that is unable to tell the truth in its very capacity to tell the truth – is what besets us today. Is there a voice that can speak out of this paradox without its paradoxical claim on what it says? The task of ecopoetics, I argue, is to find a way of speaking the truth of the human relation to nature: not with the voice that speaks paradoxically, but with the voice unheard in this very speaking. To find a way to speak like this, we need to reverse the order of the ear over the eye, so that the logos – the rationality of saying what is true – is affirmed in what is seen rather than said. Here I turn in more detail to Lyotard’s practice of textual reading.
In Discourse, Figure, Lyotard opens up an entirely new field of inquiry in what he calls the given. What is this given?
The given is not a text, it possesses an inherent thickness, or rather a difference, which is not to be read, but rather seen; and this difference, and the immobile mobility that reveals it, are what continually fall into oblivion in the process of signification. (Discourse, Figure 3)
What Lyotard draws attention to here is the paradox of the given: what is given is also taken away – a visually opaque phantasm evanescing with dynamic potential that ‘falls into oblivion’ when we try to assign it meaning. Lyotard calls this paradoxical giving-and-taking-away a recessus – a withdrawal of the perceptual field.[v] A recessus occurs when the poem’s visual field withdraws, leaving behind its trace – an evanescing phantasm whose appearance is repressed in what is said. A recessus is not invisible, but ‘visible in its invisibility’ when we read the poem with the voice, as if it meant something for us. To make the recessus visible in its phantasmic potential we need to read against the voice; to make the visual field come to light in what is not said in what is said.
At this point I would like to show how recessus works in Wallace Stevens’s poem entitled ‘The Rock’. ‘The Rock’ is structured around a central image – an image of an unpresentable ‘thing in itself’ named the ‘rock’. In its unpresentability, the rock can only signify by what it negates. Everything in the poem is presented negatively – against the unpresentability of the rock. With this negativity in mind, let’s now turn to the poem itself, and how it begins:
It is an illusion that we were ever alive,
Lived in the houses of mothers, arranged ourselves
By our own motions in a freedom air.
Note how the first line invokes a negation: ‘it’ is not some thing. It is an illusion – a state of false seeing that arises negatively. Everything that follows in the poem is cast in negative terms.
Were not and are not. Absurd. The words spoken
Were not and are not. It is not to be believed.
The meeting at noon at the edge of the field seems like
An invention …
In such a state of negation, what can the ‘we’ – as in ‘we were ever alive’ – count on to secure life as something affirmative, something real? Only the rock in its singularity – the rock as a singular thing.
The rock is the grey particular of man’s life
The rock is the stern particular of the air
The rock becomes an empty signifier for any number of things: human life, but also for the air itself, the environment in which human life exists. Yet further on we find that the rock can also be described in terms of colours:
Turquoise the rock, at odious evening bright
With redness that sticks fast to evil dreams
Despite all of these attempts to make the rock appear before us with poetic images, the rock must withdraw:
Yet the rock itself must remain untouched by what we use to describe it:
It is not enough to cover the rock with leaves.
We must be cured of it by a cure of the ground
Or cure ourselves, that is equal to the cure
Of the ground, a cure beyond forgetfulness.
And yet the leaves, if they broke into bud,
If they broke into bloom, if they bore fruit,
And if we ate the incipient colorings
Of their fresh culls might be a cure of the ground.
The fiction of the leaves is an icon
Of the poem, the figuration of blessedness,
And the icon is the man … .
The rock is a massive entity that remains impervious to life – the leaves, the buds, the fruit that sustains us. Non-human ‘plant life’ as things in themselves are barred by the presence of the rock. All that is left is the poem itself: an iconic semblance of what we cannot have. According to the poet, this is our only cure.
Not only is the rock withdrawn, it is also subject to a law: ‘you shall not adorn the rock with images’. It must remain unseen. Put simply, the law is the law of negation: for anything to be said, the saying must negate what it says. Yet by describing what he sees, the poet revokes the law. Caught in the paradox of the given in having to see what must remain unseen, he announces that ‘we’ are sick and in need of a cure.
We must be cured of it by a cure of the ground
Or cure ourselves, that is equal to the cure
We must be cured of ‘it’ – the illusion of life announced in the first line of the poem: the negativity that rules human existence. We humans must find a cure in ourselves that is equal to it. For the poet, the cure is the poem itself: the icon of man’s negative mode of being.
Stevens’s poem resolves the paradox of the given in favour of the Anthropos whose ‘sickness’ must be cured. The things of nature invoked by the poetic voice (the leaves, the wind, the oddly perceived ‘mango’s rind’) become negative-value for the poem’s saying of the cure; they can only speak insofar as they contribute to humankind’s cure in negating whatever the rock excludes. What cannot be seen in this saying is the positivity of the things themselves in their indifference to the ‘human condition’ (think of Celan’s silent stones that speak, not for you or me, but on behalf of no body – Nobody – in particular). Here we encounter a problem that has beset modern poetry from the start: its Anthropocentricism that turns the things of nature into negative-value only. Here, the phantasm of nature – its surplus mode of appearing – is unable to speak back. Nature remains ‘dumb’ to the concerns of the Anthropos and its sickness unto death. The challenge to poetics now becomes clear: can the poet speak of nature in its ecological surplus without reducing it to negative-value? Is there a way of making the phantasm visible in its potential for renewed life? Can the phantasm speak back?
John Ryan has written what he calls ‘topogorgical poetry’ – poems that describe his experience of walking in the mountain gorges of the New England Tableland in eastern mainland Australia.
Topogorgical poetry is poetry that
attends to the seismic scales, perplexing prospects, pastoral inversions, deep temporalities, exacting transcorporealities, and biopolitical legacies of chasmed landscapes. (Ryan, ‘Seismic’ 102)
Ryan’s poetry captures the Deep Time reality of the more-than-human forces at work as the poet walks through the mountain forests describing what he sees. These forces are not abstract but are at work in him, resulting in the poems themselves as poetic descriptions of ‘collaborative meaning-making with the botanical world, and the embeddedness of plant agency, semiosis, sentience, and intelligence in [the] places he [passes through]’ (104). However, what is abstract is the ‘I’ that speaks in the poems – a deictic marker of the poet who speaks and walks – the one directly affected by the forces in what is seen. In Ryan’s poems, sight is privileged in the invocation of an active ‘I’ for reasons that I will now explain.
‘I Turned the Corner and Entered the Mind of the Beech Forest’ is a poem to be read and seen all at once like a visual work of art. It consists of three columns of verse set side by side as if to allow interactions across lateral connections. In the singularity of its visual presentation, the poem affirms rather than negates its images. How is this achieved? If we recall Lyotard’s ‘paradox of the given’, what is given withdraws in a recessus – a regressed perceptual field. In Stevens’s poem, the voice’s reflexivity – its capacity to ‘know that it knows’ what it says – negates the perceptual field from outside what it says. The recessus is repressed. In Ryan’s poem, the voice does something quite different: it remains on the inside of its own saying, thereby affirming what it negates. In this way, the recessus is released.
Here are the opening lines:
I turned the corner and I entered the mind
Of the beech forest. The seen was not a scene
But a psyche. The trees’ old way of thinking
Coppiced from within me. I walked inwardly
A while towards eternity.
Note how the ‘I’ here designates not a state of mind but an action: the action of turning a corner – a spatial designation of the place in which the one associated with the poetic voice acts. In designating what it does rather than thinks, the I places itself at a distance from the action. Yet it also remains as part of the event of what it describes, in the same way that a simple narration employs the past tense to describe an action as it happens. This uncomplicated way of describing an ongoing action from the perspective of the moment just past places the poetic voice – the I that speaks – inside the very action it describes (the technical term for this is a para-index). The I does not negate what it sees, but negates itself in seeing, releasing what it sees from the grip of the Anthropos. The poet describes this release in the following lines:
… The seen was not a scene
But a psyche. The trees’ old way of thinking
Coppiced from within me. I walked inwardly
A while towards eternity.
Here we need to be mindful of how negation is working in these lines. The first negation occurs in distinguishing between two things: what is seen and the scene itself – the ‘set-up’ of things.
… The seen was not a scene
What is seen as given negates the scene. Here, the I negates itself in the ongoing act of describing the ‘scene’ described as it is passed through (in the past tense – ‘It was not a scene’), producing a gap in-between what is seen and the act of saying it (as if the poet had entered the gap in the mirror image we looked at before; in the delayed moment of recessus that leads otherwise). In this gap, the beech tree’s ancient way of thinking suddenly comes to light: a ‘psyche … coppiced from within me’. The mind of the forest is both in me and out of me – a condition entirely consistent with the poem’s topological-grammatical structure, where the I speaks interstitially, in-between the inside and the outside of the visual field. In negating itself, the I moves, not back into itself in self-reflexive transcendence (as in Stevens’s poem ‘The Rock’), but ‘inwardly’ into the awaiting mind of the forest. What is seen is seen in the interstitial gap, where all thought and action happens in the relativity of space and time; a ‘spacetime’ event, when the linear time of Chronos and the nonlinear time of Aion coincide; an evental time which the poet calls ‘eternity’.
… I walked inwardly / A while towards eternity
The poem enacts a journey through the abyssal event of spacetime – the heterogeneity of all the pasts felt co-presently in an ‘eternally’ collapsing recessus of the visual field:
My body dropped through basalt strata of
Other epochs as I rounded the elbow below
Point Lookout and crashed face-first into the
Very thought of the forest.
In the central column of the poem, the poet experiences a vision of the recessus as a heterogeneity of things, affects and actions intermingling through the transformational forces of Deep Time, as if it had created the event in a single stroke. At the heart of this vision is an image of a chainsawed tree:
… a collapsed beech,
chainsawed, is disclosing
Its clotted crimson heart
In coronary rays incised on
A cross-section of memory,
Evanescent opaque views
Over gullies made of gums
and wallabies …
This image of a mortally wounded tree oozing life through the ages of the forest’s ancient memory lies at the heart of the given, permeating the entire poem with its sacrificed blood-sap, transfigured into light and life (‘coronary rays’). This sacrificial image is not negative (unlike Stevens’ impermeable rock), but positive: it affirms the indispensability of the oikeios (the dynamic web of life), giving life under sufferance as evidence of a crime – a crime against nature of cosmic proportions.[vi] Suddenly, the paradox of the given dissolves in the poet’s vision of nature affirmed in what is seen. The poem is itself the act of seeing what the poet sees.
The aim of my analysis has been to unravel the logic of negation at work in two poems that demonstrate radically different procedures for subjectivising the poietic voice. The poietic voice is the voice unheard in poetic saying; the voice repressed in what is said. To access the poietic voice, we need to think of poetical saying in a visual field withdrawn in a recessus: an archaic topography of images negated by the act of poetic saying itself.[vii] The poietic voice is released when we see the visual field in its negated state as other to what the Anthropos calls for; other than in terms of a cure for the human condition cast out of nature’s plenitude. In the case of Wallace Stevens’s poem ‘The Rock’, the poietic voice remains unheard, recessed in negated nature. However, in John Ryan’s poem ‘I Turned the Corner and Entered the Mind of the Beech Forest’, the unheard poietic voice becomes heard when the poet ‘turns the corner’, that is, takes a diverging path by breaking the deictic link between saying and seeing in the visual presentation of the poem itself. The poem becomes a phantasm co-created with things named, where the act of naming imparts new life in a poetic vision that includes human culpability for trauma inflicted on nature’s plenitude – its capacity to give.[viii] In this procedure, the poet unravels the paradox of the given by negating his own voice in what he sees, as a praxis of creative shaping that includes the capacity of the poet himself as part of this very poem that I am currently reading. Anthropocentrism is thwarted by turning the Anthropos against itself, effecting a creative-deconstructive event as post-Anthropocentric ecopoetics.
Finally I want to end with a suggestion: that poems be read as critical-philosophical sayings of their own limits. By limits I mean the limits imposed on us in our use of language to impart what cannot be presented. By following the gaps in the deixis between what is said and the saying itself, these limits will be exposed. What are they? They concern negation – the No that allows a Yes (Freud ‘Negation’). As users of the prosthesis we call language, humans cannot get around negation: to do so requires further negation that says Yes to the No, triggering repetition or what psychoanalysts in the Freudian tradition call drive (Freud, ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ 307–11). In poetry we have a way of transgressing this limit through poietic drive working in the gap suspended in-between the Yes and the No as open – but to what? We need to listen to the poietic voice as the Yes heard in the No: that which affirms otherwise as a chance to begin again in what is not said in the saying; a chance to speak after the Anthropos by transgressing its limits without surpassing them. This is, I propose, the task for poetics today.